The Terror Within: A Hypothetical Look at Changing Agents
by Georgia McBride
WOW. After Part I of my post I received thirteen emails, five direct messages on twitter, seven private messages on Facebook, four texts to my phone and two phone calls. Everyone wanted to know if the post was about me and whether I had crafted a fictional tale of my own personal experience. A few of those inquiries came from literary agents, all very well-meaning of course. Let me just say this. First, thank you all for your concern. It is very sweet. But, the post was actually something I’d been meaning to write about for some time. I only hadn’t had the time and wanted to make it special and interesting, not depressing and boring.
So, when I was asked to do this guest blog post, I decided now is the time. Why? Since January 2011, I have personally spoken to eight writers published and non, who have left their agents for various reasons THIS YEAR and three well-published writers who have offered their support and sharing how they have left agents in their careers. Some of you already know that I too have had an agent change this year. BUT, before I tell you my personal story, let’s get back to our heroine and find out what’s happened since we last saw her.
Betty (bet you had NO idea that was her name) has spent two weeks crying into the phone, drunk tweeting and eating chocolate faster than Willy Wonka can produce it. Even Renesme (I know this isn’t the correct spelling, but she is so worried about plagiarism that she insists on spelling it this way) the cat is sick of looking at her and runs away at the sound of her voice. Betty’s kids have moved in with neighbors since she resembles Zombie Mom more than the mom they remember. And hubby? Oh crap. She kind of remembers something about leaving him at Costco a week ago but can’t be sure, so she dials his number at work only to be stumped on the fifth digit. So she calls the only friend whose number she can recall to ask if she can help her find her husband and she reminds Betty that they are in fact divorced and have been for two years. Ugh.
Scrolling her email Betty clicks on the latest deal news from Publishers Marketplace and reads lazily until she notices a deal made by her former agent in the genre in which she writes – or rather used to write, since she hasn’t written a single word other than drunk tweets in the past two weeks. Some BITCH got HER DEAL. Oh man. Betty takes a deep breath and tries to be the bigger person when all of a sudden she realizes she IS the bigger person. In fact, she must have gained like seven pounds since the whole leaving her agent thing started. Then it hits her, something has to give. She can’t live like this. She need to reclaim her life starting with figuring out how she will move on, maybe find a new agent and get the darn cat to love her again.
Betty takes a seat and begins to think about what went wrong with her last agent. Is there anything she could have done that would have resulted in a different outcome? Anything? She wonders if former Awesome Agent is thinking of her, if perhaps she might be having similar thoughts, maybe even regrets. Well. Not the ones about eating all the Bon Bons, but the ones about what she could have done differently.
Meanwhile in an office in Manhattan, our former agent is in a regularly scheduled monthly meeting and today she will talk about her clients and their various goings on. Client 1 has a few recent foreign sales, client 2 is in round 3 of revisions for her MG, client 3 has sold world rights to her Cooking With Steroids book and Client 4 is going on submission with a historical romance in two weeks! Client 5 is no longer a client. When asked what went wrong, she has this to say, “Client had unreasonable expectations for the relationship, and by the time I was ready to start looking at her submissions timeline, trends were beginning to shift and the editors who may have been interested in the project months ago have moved in a different direction. I’m not certain I could have convinced them otherwise or that she’s a strong enough writer that I would have been able to work through revisions where it would have mattered.”
OUCH! It’s a good thing Betty isn’t listening.
Unfortunately, our heroine will never hear that very important feedback from our agent and simply believes the agent didn’t care enough. In my humble opinion, perhaps the agent could have, when they first spoke, expressed her concerns about the novel and its thin possibility for acceptance by a very small potential pool of editors despite how much the agent herself liked the work. This would have set the expectation from the beginning and given the author something to consider. Having said that, would the author choose NOT to sign with an agent who presented the opportunity in this way? Is it better for the agent to sugarcoat?
Of course, no agent can predict whether a title will sell to editors or if any interest at all will be shown. (S)he must use her/his instincts, trends in the market, and past sales to determine what might be of interest based on limited information. (S)he can only give the author an idea of an editor’s tastes, what types of books are selling, and what that editor has recently acquired. Nothing is ever guaranteed.
What Betty could have done upfront was ask the agent some serious questions before signing: What will happen if my book doesn’t sell? How many rounds will you do before determining the book to be unsalable? What happens then? The writer can also ask: Will the agency contract only cover the one particular book or a specific period of time?
What Betty should NEVER EVER have done was threaten the agent that she was going to leave if what she wanted was to get the agent’s attention or to get her to see the error of her ways and ask her to stay! No matter what the reason, unless a writer firmly intends to leave and is positive (s)he cannot be talked out of leaving and ending the agency relationship, (s)he shouldn’t even bring up leaving. There is a HUGE difference between working through issues with an agent and wanting to end the relationship. Every relationship has problems from time to time. The agent-writer relationship is no different.
If you find yourself in a similar situation to Betty’s, never THREATEN to leave. If you are going to leave, and have made up your mind, leave. Leave quietly, be professional and move on. And whatever you do, DO NOT GO BLIBBER-BLABBERING ABOUT IT ON SOCIAL MEDIA. This is simply wrong. No agent wants to hear about how your last agent was horrible and you had to leave because the level of horribleness was counter to your awesomeness. It will be very difficult for you to find another agent if you put this negative talk out into the world.
TALK TO YOUR AGENT. Don’t be a drama queen/king. Tell your agent what is troubling you, and don’t be defensive or confrontational. Accusations and assumptions never help. Ask questions, provide solutions.
If your issue is lack of communication, say so. I think we can all do better with communication. Ask your agent about expectations. If you send her/him an email on Monday, and you would like to hear back by Wednesday at the latest, find out if that’s unreasonable given her schedule. If so, what timeframe works best for her/him? REMEMBER, the relationship with your agent is a two-way relationship. Your agent should NEVER make you feel as if (s)he is holding all the power, and you should never be inflexible and completely insane, er, I mean unreasonable. If either of these situations exists, you are not in a positive agent-writer relationship, and should seek remedy.
If your issue is lack of information or you feel as if you don’t know what’s going on, let me first say this: THERE IS NOTHING GOING ON. Agents don’t normally withhold information of great importance from their clients. It is not unheard of that an agent may want to save all your news for a phone call later in the week rather than having to email or call you ten times with small bits of information. But other than that, if your agent hasn’t called back or emailed, it is likely that’s because (s)he has nothing to report. There is something called common courtesy however, and if you have a question and have called a few times or emailed, I expect most agents will reply in some way to ease your concern.
It’s a little different when you are on submission, if there is a contract on the table or in dispute, or there are issues with the publisher, you are on tour, etc. In those cases, you may need communication more frequently. HOWEVER, even when there is little going on, there is nothing wrong with you checking in every 1-2 weeks simply to let your agent know you are alive. Try to keep the communication short and to the point. I like to send these kinds of notes.
Hi agent full of awesomeness,
Hope all is well. Just writing to say hello and to let you know I am working on blah blah blah and have an appearance coming up at blah blah. Keep being a rock start and talk soon!
This kind of communication lets the agent know you are thinking about her/him, writing and not being a slacker, but does NOT add work to their day by requiring them to write you back.
It’s what our Betty could have done, or should have done. But she didn’t. She simply assumed her fantastic agent would call her, was thinking of her 24/7 and would let her know when stuff was poppin’.
I have no intention of laying sole responsibility at Betty’s feet. But I do feel that, as a writer, you must take your career into your own hands. Don’t sit back and rely on others. They call it “hiring” an agent for a reason.
So, now here Betty is again. She has made a list (didn’t I tell you she sat at the kitchen table and made a list of all the things she wants and all she does not want in an agent? PAY ATTENTION, PPL), and she heads to her computer determined to select new agents who she feels may be able to 1. Breathe new life into current project, 2. Help her see the way clear to the next project, and 3. Partner with her a tad longer than last agent.
She smiles to herself for the first time since being without her former agent as she realizes that one of the best things to come from no longer being agented is that she can clearly see what she needs in an agent. She will be much better prepared when she gets “the call” and she now knows what questions she needs to ask to find the right agent for her specific and very unique needs.
TO BE CONTINUED: Look for Part III on Georgia’ blog next week, including information Georgia’s own agent journey.
Meanwhile, join us tonight for #yalitchat on twitter at 9PM EST where Georgia is hosting AGENTPALOOZA. Find agent tips, when to submit, where to submit, how to submit, best agent resources, horror stories, slush pile madness, agent shout outs and more! That’s tonight, Wednesday, October 19, 2011.
COMMENT TO WIN -- THE BEGINNING OF AFTER (ARC) or BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS. (U.S. and Canadian entries only.)